Want to be a reporter? Learn to code

JavaScript code

Prospective journalists need to do more than dig up dirt and craft a good lead. They need to know how to program or at least learn about programming, according to Miranda Mulligan, executive director of Northwestern University’s Knight News Innovation Lab.

But journalism students show what she sees as a lack of desire to learn about JavaScript, HTML, CSS and other tools to help tell a story on a web page, rather than the front page, Mulligan wrote in the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. It’s probably never been easier for students of any age to actually learn to code — there’s free or near free online coursework from Codecademy, the MIT/Harvard EdX program or Coursera. But Mulligan’s recommendation is that J-schools need to integrate these coding courses — or at least teach students about how web pages deal with or render their stories — into the base journalism curriculum.

Mulligan wrote:

We need to innovate our curricula, really looking at what we are teaching our students. Learning, or mastering, specific software is not properly preparing our future journalists for successful, life-long careers. No one can learn digital storytelling in a semester. Mastering Dreamweaver and Flash isn’t very future-friendly, and having a single mid-level “Online Journalism” course offered as an elective does more harm than good. We should be teaching code in all of our journalism courses — each semester, each year, until graduation.

There is growing belief in many quarters that software programming is no longer just for programmers — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to learn how to code; 6-year olds in Estonia may soon do the same. And with more news flowing through the web rather than print, what Mulligan proposes here is not surprising at all.

It’s our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists. HTML is not magic. Writing code is not wizardry; it’s just hard work. Learning to program will not save journalism and probably won’t change the way we write our stories. It is, however, a heck of a lot more fun being a journalist on the web once “how computers read and understand our content” is understood.

What is somewhat surprising, in my view, is the reluctance she sees among young would-be journalists to learn these skills. From what I’ve seen over the past few years, many young reporters are impressively proficient in these skills. It’s the geezers (ahem) who have a hard time with coding. But here’s the thing: Even geezers can learn. And if they want to stay employed, they will do so.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user argus

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